Online and Unabashed: Orthodox Rabbis and Scholars Take to the Internet
A universe of blogs has sprung up where issues of Jewish law and rabbinic authority are discussed in unprecedented ways
Whatever effect the Agudah’s session and the Asifa had on blogs was minimal at best. Bloggers continued to blog, and rabbis continued to discuss both Torah topics and social issues online. If anything, blogger rabbis received a new burst of energy during the years following the Agudah’s session, covering topics from Orthodox theology, to practical halakhic matters, to the limits of contemporary Torah authority. Student’s blog, Hirhurim, which had for nearly a decade existed largely with him as its sole writer, morphed in July 2010 into Torah Musings, a magazine-type platform with a slate of its own rabbinic contributors, similar to that of Cross-Currents.
Not to be outdone, rabbis affiliated with the Open Orthodox movement, Weiss’ controversial left-leaning strain of Modern Orthodoxy, created Morethodoxy, a platform with its own slate of blogger rabbis. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, the chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Weiss’ rabbinical seminary, and a Morethodoxy contributor, told me: “There were a good number of blogs serving the conservative elements of Orthodoxy, and there was a sense that we needed a platform to thoughtfully share the progressive perspectives, to articulate ideas that would be censored elsewhere.”
The bad boy of blogger rabbis is undoubtedly Fink, whose blog at FinkOrSwim.com is in some ways the most ambitious, one that champions a view of Orthodoxy that goes beyond the rules and deals with the most pressing, often unspoken, struggles facing some in the Orthodox community. “We live in the modern world,” Fink said, “and we have to deal with whatever comes our way.”
Fink also maintains an active and lively Facebook page, where he publishes multiple posts each day and has an audience of nearly 3,500 friends and followers, with comments sometimes reaching over a thousand per post. He has posted over 47,000 tweets to his Twitter account since starting it in 2009. No topic appears too sensitive for discussion, and his posts do not shy from touching on the most essential aspects of Orthodox faith—such as the authorship of the Torah or the fallibility of the Talmudic sages. In fact, Fink has come under criticism, with some charging that such frankness only weakens the faith of his readers. Some rabbis, Fink reported in one blog post, have called his writings heresy and advised followers not to read him. He admits to feeling hurt, but he has few regrets: “I truly believe … that what I do on a broader scale outweighs the unfortunate negative consequences.”
If Fink has allowed himself to go where few other rabbis do, he has yet to earn much ire from his fellow rabbinic bloggers. That distinction goes to the bloggers at Morethodoxy and their Open Orthodox movement, whose support for headline-grabbing halakhic innovations—such as rabbinic ordination for women or proposing marriage annulments for some agunah cases—is considered by some to go far beyond what normative Orthodoxy allows. Of late, this subject has animated the rabbinic blogosphere like almost no other. Adlerstein compares Open Orthodoxy’s innovations to that of the Conservative movement of nearly a century ago, except that the threat, he says, is now even more acute: “We are in an age where there is so much skepticism, naturally fueled by the information available on the Internet, that things can erode even faster.”
Student agrees. In Open Orthodoxy’s rush to institute communal change, without proper guidance from leading Torah authorities, he sees exactly the kind of talk he once heard from Conservative rabbis. “I crossed that line in one direction, so I see very clearly where that line is. And they [Open Orthodoxy and the Morethodoxy bloggers] have crossed it in the other direction.”
To some of the Cross-Currents bloggers, however, the issue isn’t only Open Orthodoxy. Following the SAR principal’s announcement that the school would permit girls to put on tefillin during school prayers, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a prominent New Jersey rabbi and Cross-Currents contributor, wrote, “Once again, what passes for psak [halakhic ruling] in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit.”
If some find such rhetoric inflammatory, it is precisely that which creates the kind of vibrancy to these discussions, and even rabbis who don’t have strong feelings either way, find themselves drawn into the debate, if only to disavow any shared sense of urgency. Fink, for instance, considers much of the debate on tefillin to be beside the point. In an essay titled “Women Wearing Tefilin Is Really Not Such a Big Deal,” he wrote: “We already disagree on plenty of things and we can get along just fine … I don’t accept that this particular issue is so vital that it must break us up now.”
To Adlerstein, of course, the issue is a very big deal indeed and in a sense is what guides his entire worldview and much of his work on the blog. For all his support for open debate, he considers dedication to halakha supreme and unbendable unless approved by the greatest of all Torah scholars. In his view, for a high-school principal to take such a step without guidance from leading halakhic authorities constitutes a severe departure from normative Orthodoxy.
“To an inveterate student of halakha,” Adlerstein said, “that’s the kiss of death.”
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